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Five Ministry Dynamics for the Gray Zone

August 4th, 2022 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

From Rebuilders, which continues to be one of my favorite podcasts. Essential listening for ministry leaders, pastors, etc.

Here they are discussing challenges that are confronting the church in what Sayers calls a “gray zone.” Gray zones refer to historical moments of transition where one era is ending and another is beginning, but for the moment there is still some overlap and a high degree of uncertainty as to what the future will hold.

There are five particular issues that Sayers raises in the episode:

  • Discipleship Capacity
  • Discernment Capacity
  • Churn-and-Burn Capacity
  • Volunteer Capacity
  • Baby Boomer Apocalypse

Here’s are some excerpts from the discussion of each issue. But you really should listen to the whole thing. It’s excellent.

Discipleship capacity:

Discipleship capacity is a new term I’ve coined. I’ve been reading about how institutions work. One thing they talk about is ‘state capacity.’ So you might have two governments, one with low state capacity and one with high. Both desire to fix the roads and have a fantastic road system. However, their ability to execute that is dependent on their capacity. So that goes for organizations, funding, access to resources, getting people behind them, it enables them to complete that task.

I’ve thought about this term of ‘capacity’ and I think what we’ve seen in the last two years is that COVID has revealed our discipleship capacity. What we thought made a healthy church before was our programmatic capacity. We had this ability to be logistical, to have high program capacity. The churches that were celebrated had lots of people at them with lots of programs. That’s hard to do. Not every church can do that. Not every church has the leaders, the finances, the people, the bureaucracy to do that. But one thing that was missing in all that was discipleship capacity. Discipleship capacity is your capacity as an organization to allow the people in your community to live the life of Jesus in contrast to the narratives of the world, the influences of the flesh.

The pandemic had this break period. It revealed that lots of churches have high logistical capacity, high programmatic capacity, or, looking at churches that aren’t big, perhaps they had people who kept coming through stickability. They had high loyalty capacity with those people, that place. But then with COVID after six weeks, attendance dropped by a third. There are churches where giving has gone down by 60-70%. The conversation’s been ‘I thought I had my people, but I didn’t. I thought they were being transformed by my sermons and these programs but they weren’t.’ And you saw all kinds of things happen: political polarization taking over, people  deconstructing their faith and walking out the door.

What you realized was the actual concept of discipleship capacity was easy to ignore because its weakness was covered up by our logistic and programmatic and stickability capacities. Growing our discipleship capacity is going to be absolutely crucial going forward.

We celebrated churches that had logistic capacity. But what that did is it gave us a tremendous breadth, spreading ourselves far and wide. But discipleship capacity gives you depth, depths of commitment to Jesus, commitments to his cause. Discipleship capacity creates resilience. So then when a pandemic happens and you can’t go to church for awhile,  those people will still be pushing into that community because it’s actually about Jesus. They understand there will be suffering and disruption. They will go deeper with Jesus in times of trouble. They won’t fall to political polarizations or their faith won’t deconstruct when they don’t have the program to hold it all together.

We need to look at our metrics and ask the question ‘how do we really disciple people?’ How do we create communities of faith that have high discipleship capacity? The remnant, the next thing that God’s going to do, is going to be about this.

Discernment capacity:

The power of narratives, the power of things that contend for our loyalty, is only getting stronger. And we’re in a post-Christian culture where in many ways the culture is trying to disciple us. So to have discernment in the cultural and spiritual sense, that’s another thing that is lacking. You saw churches that didn’t talk about politics for 20 years get overrun by politics. You saw people deconstruct their faith away from Christianity and then just fall into other cultural forms. There’s an inability to question the hedonistic, acquisitive, individualistic life. That’s another script out there.

Many of our churches lacked discernment capacity. I’ve had conversations where, yeah, there’s still a faith there. But you talk to them and you’re like, ‘oh my goodness, you’ve completely swallowed the ideological book on this or that.’ I’m reading Mark at the moment and Mark’s Gospel is about announcing Jesus as King and God coming close and the suffering servant. But it’s also this critique of the Roman empire and imperial propaganda and cults. Being able to critique those ideologies can’t be an ‘add-on’ in churches. We have to build up our discernment capacity and help others do that.

Churn-and-Burn Capacity

I remember talking about five years ago to a number of leaders from some larger churches, and these churches were seen as quite successful, all of them said that what’s happening at churches is we have an 80 to 90% annual turnover of people. They know that every year this many people are going to move to their city, this many students are going to come to study in their town, this many people are going to be looking for a church or checking a church out. So they were just living on this constant turnover. I even heard some people talk about how ‘it’s like a river, you’ve got a river rushing through your church and you’re trying to fish people out.’ I remember thinking, ‘you know that’s really hard to develop discipleship capacity in a church like that.

Discipleship is a process that takes time and long-term investment and relationship and being in place. Sure, there are times when we get moved around by God and life and circumstances. But every 12 months moving faith communities?If you’re moving friends or you know spouse or family every 12 months, it’s a very disorientating thing! Yet somehow that’s sort of become acceptable in large parts of the church and not questioned.

(Also), there is a point where churches are going to start to run out of new people. I think there’s an end to this model, where the churches that have built their model on just getting lots of people and every year there’s a new wave of people coming… well, there is an end point to that, particularly in the west.

(There are other effects too.) If you think about it, a lot of people who do their nine months, 12 months, two years in a church. They start deconstructing their faith and it’s almost like they’ve been vaccinated against faith in some ways.

Volunteer Capacity

I think a lot of people are reassessing life. If the previous era was the great acceleration: work hard, get ahead, acquire, have experiences… well, with the pandemic we stopped. So many thought, ‘what am i doing?’ Think about the amount of people who’ve moved to the country or moved to the beach or somehow rethought their lives. There was a reassessment of values and a desire not to run around in the same way.

What I’m hearing now is not just that not as many people are coming to church, but not as many are volunteering at church.

How are contemporary churches shaped by the great acceleration? If the culture was acquisitive and running hard and high performance and high efficiency with high standards of excellence, if people have high expectations when they go to the shopping center or to get on a flight or go to a hotel or go to a concert, the church was part of that general cultural milieu. What you got on a Sunday at many churches was quite incredible. What churches were able to pull off, and that was part of the attraction.

In churches our resource has been volunteerism. What if, just like oil, that now costs more? People are not wanting to live the lifestyle of the great acceleration so part of the change is if your energy base to run the kind of services you are running has diminished, how do you adapt to that? I think about the the small Baptist church I grew up. The pastor opened the door himself and there was a lady who played the organ and someone was handing out the bulletin. It had very low volunteerism to run a Sunday service. We’ve expanded that in the contemporary church but maybe it’s time to reassess that.

I think the question we’ve been asking at our church is if we’ve got people less, how do you want to use that time you’ve got them? Maybe they’re not going to turn up and move chairs for two hours to set up the worship space. But you still have them for an hour. Maybe it’s better to get some guys to read Tozer’s The Pursuit of Holiness. Maybe that’s a better use of that hour.

Baby Boomer Apocalypse

The positives of the baby boomers is that the baby boomers have provided a tremendous amount of volunteer capacity. If you went through your denomination or through your town or through your city and you went to say 15 congregations on a weekend, what you would notice is that the majority of attendees are baby boomers, that the majority of tithers are baby boomers, and that the majority of people who have institutional power are baby boomers. What I mean by that is they’re the ones who will turn up and volunteer and do all the governance stuff that we need done. They sit on boards, do books, do the boring stuff that they’re not expecting to get self-actualized by.

Like, my daughter did a spoken word thing for school. Rotary were there and they were the judges. I looked at this group of rotary people, all baby boomers, all aging, and I thought, ‘you’re not gonna get replaced.’ There’s no one else under the baby generation who on a cold Wednesday night is gonna turn up to a hear a bunch of 12-year-olds do some spoken word and give up their night it’s not going to happen.

The oldest cohort of the baby boomers is 77. What we’re going to see are people retiring, people who are not able to volunteer as much, their health will deteriorate. That is going to take out of the church an incredible amount of attendance, it’s going to take out of the church an incredible amount of volunteer power, it’s going to take out of the church an incredible amount of institutional power and financial resources.

I’ll say this to younger generations listening: You’ve been shaped with a view of life where you have unrealistic expectations. Your expectations are pumped up beyond the ability of reality to deliver. The fact is we’re looking at a possible downturn in the economy. In a downturn, you flip from ‘I want a job that gives me meaning,’ to ‘I want a job that pays the bills.’ My hope is that this next period will see a renewal of people who turn to God in the midst of this crisis. I’m seeing the first fruits of this. I’m seeing people push deeper into Jesus.

In the era of the great acceleration, it was easy to live a life where you felt like you didn’t need God. It was easy to forget God, to fall for the narrative that it’s all about you. As Christians, we had a Christian veneer to our self-actualization. Now we’re seeing it start to go wrong—mental health challenges, anxiety. But there’s a danger here, that we just go into ourselves exclusively. Yes, we need to be serious about mental health and anxiety and we need to slow down.

But also there is a great task outside ourselves that the Holy Spirit is calling us into. The answer is not just to go inward. I’ve known so many people who for 20, 30, 40, 50 years sacrificed and volunteered and gave. We have lived in the benefit of that. We need to do that now not for our own self-actualization but for the Kingdom of God in the world. Are you at a moment where there is a hinge of history before you and you’re being asked ‘what are you going to do, in partnership with the Holy Spirit, in this moment?

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).